William Faulkner and the Book of Mormon

I recently shared with some classes the acceptance speeches of great American authors who had won the Nobel Prize in literature.  I’m always struck by William Faulkner‘s declaration that:

The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.

It reminds me so precisely of this statement from Moroni at the end of the Book of Mormon:

give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.

Another reminder that the greatest literary achievements tend to admit the inherent darkness of existence, because only then can we actually rise above it.

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Serendipitous Relevance and American Lit

I like to show how the books we study in school have left a lasting legacy to contemporary society.  If nothing else, when students complain how boring and outdated the books are, I can either try to elicit some open mindedness by showing them that P. Diddy consciously imitates The Great Gatsby, or I can at least argue that their recalcitrance is in opposition to the popular culture with which they’re enthralled. 

This year has been an especially good one for that.  I started the year off with The Scarlet Letter, just as a teen comedy loosely based on it, Easy A, hit theaters.  When we read Moby Dick, I was able to show them the recent Blackberry ad about the novel (many students told me that the ad made much more sense afterwards!).  We finished Huckleberry Finn last month and now, as we review the semester, there’s a national controversy brewing about a new, censored version of the text. 

Near the end of this year, when I try to wrestle some Faulkner into my students, I’ll be able to tell them that Hollywood hunk James Franco is directing a new film of Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying

Now if only I could find a more recent reference for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea than a second season episode of The Simpsons

A Silly Test of Book of Mormon Authorship

This morning, First Thoughts featured a link to a new tool called “I Write Like…” where writers can compare their work to the styles of famous authors.  The site is clearly an ad for a publishing agency, and gives wildly illogical results: for example, though it correctly identified the first chapter of Huck Finn for me as written in the style of Mark Twain and the short story “Araby” as by James Joyce, it also said the first chapter of Genesis (King James Version) was in the style of Kurt Vonnegut and that the first few paragraphs of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” sounded like H.P. Lovecraft.  Those comparisons are plausible, I suppose, but still a bit far-fetched.

The site does not provide any commentary on its analyses, nor does it even explain its program’s methodology.  Such background information would make this much more enjoyable.  As it is, it’s little more than a cute novelty. 

However, as I played with this toy, I thought about the issue of Book of Mormon authorship.  Though this would hardly be a scholarly study, I wondered what this site would say about it: does all of the text seem to come from one author, or many?  Does it sound like Joseph Smith?  (Though, to be fair, “I Write Like…” surely doesn’t have Smith in its program, nor is it consistent: in the space of two pages, Faulkner’s short story goes from sounding like Lovecraft, apparently, to Vladimir Nabokov.  My test here is purely facetious fun.) 

1 Nephi chapter 1 is written in the style of cyberpunk master William Gibson.  (Strange, I don’t remember Nephi spending much time dwelling on malevolent artificial intelligence.  Perhaps the desert wilderness into which his family was exiled was the Matrix?) 

1 Nephi 22 sounds like Daniel Defoe.  Makes sense.  Nephi Robinson and Lehi Crusoe sure could have used Friday. 

Alma chapter 1 could have come from the pen of Jane Austen, it says.  Continue reading

Style Imitation Exercise

As the year winds down in American Lit, I assign a style imitation exercise to review the major works we’ve read and the styles of some important authors.  The students’ job is to write a brief version of any four stories, each in the style of a different author.  Either the story or the author has to be one we studied in class. 

Here are two examples I gave them (I know, neither Shakespeare nor Star Wars is American Lit, but I had the idea and couldn’t resist):

The Empire Strikes Back, as written by William Shakespeare

VADER:  Fair young apprentice, it is I who am the father of thy fleshly tabernacle!

LUKE:  Oh, forswear it, vile wretch!

Never shall the days come when I shall agree

To partake of the black compact thou hast proposed.

The very seraphs of heav’n shall blow their mighty trumps

Ere I rule the galaxy with thee!

Napoleon Dynamite, as written by Emily Dickinson 

Alas and woe is me,

For bereft of the sweet tots am I.

My lily-white palm reaches–

Out–to cast away the button of

The flippin idiot who–

Votes for Summer in place of Pedro–

My heart drops and yearns for…

Ninja skills!

They came up with some pretty impressive stuff.  Here are some ideas, just to give you a sense for their creativity:

  • Twilight, by Mark Twain (he highlights the pathetic flaws in every character by sarcastically mocking their lame, emo worldview)
  • William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by Herman Melville (a sixteen-word poem becomes a stark, 1000-page epic: “So very much of the innermost intensity of our eternal, ethereal souls depends upon the minutest particularities of crimson hue inherently blasted, seared into the fibre of the side of the wheelbarrow…” etc, etc)
  • A Walk To Remember, by Edgar Allan Poe  (The way it was meant to be–less corny romance, more gory phantasms torturing the dark secrets hidden inside us all.  The girl still dies.)
  • William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” by Dr. Seuss  (“I would not, could not with a corpse…well, maybe I could.”)
  • The Crucible, by Dorothy Parker (the men accuse all of the women of witchcraft because they’re neurotic and needy–the women tartly retort at first, but end up agreeing and hanging themselves.)
  • Moby Dick, by Stephen King (Ahab can’t kill the whale because it’s a psychic, flying alien!  But Ahab turns out to be a vampire from another dimension!  Now we’ve got a story.)
  • The Great Gatsby, by Mr. Huston (everybody dies on page 2)

Quotes, Pics, and Clips IV

ARTS: 

Several years ago, I noticed a poster on a friend’s wall: John William Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece The Lady of Shalott:

I was impressed by the passionate atmosphere in the piece, and could only wonder at the story behind it until I heard Loreena McKennitt’s hauntingly ethereal setting of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great poem, “The Lady of Shalott.”

This is still one of my favorite songs, and the lyrics (just Tennyson’s words set to music) are some of the best English poetry I know.  For example:

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot;
Or when the Moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed.
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.

Perfection.  I know that feeling; it’s why I love The Truman Show.  No emo band ever wrote anything half so honestly heartbreaking.

And I’m also impressed that such a minor anecdote from the Arthurian legends could spawn three great works of art in such disparate genres: poetry, painting, and pop music.  That’s significant, methinks.

EDUCATION: 

Have you ever heard of Eric Coyle?  He was a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, around the same time I was.  He was a self-described average student who “woke up” one day and decided to become extraordinary.  He worked his way up to taking 64 credits per semester, and got A’s.  He graduated with five degrees and went to Georgetown. 

When this all happened in 1998, I remember seeing it on the NBC Nightly News.  Here’s an excerpt from a story about him from The New York Times:

”It was then that I realized that there was injustice in the world and that if you wanted to be in a position where you could fight against it you would have to work terribly hard,” Mr. Coyle said. ”You would have to make sacrifices. In my case, I would have to go to law school — one of the top law schools. And to get in I would have to exceed any demands that any law school could make on me.”

”I have fun going to school,” Mr. Coyle said. ”I’m not this smart guy. I’m just average. But I got motivated.”

HUMOR: 

This isn’t a great video, but I remember my parents playing a record of this song for my brother and me when we were little kids.  I thought it was hilarious then, and now, listening to it tonight for the first time in at least twenty years, it still made me laugh.  Ladies and gentlemen, Harry Belafonte and Odetta singing, “There’s A Hole In The Bucket.”

LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE: 

When William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he gave a speech that was only a mere four paragraphs long.  You can listen to it at the Nobel Prize Web site; it only lasts three minutes. 

Like many short works, though, it packs in a power whose magnitude leaves me blissfully dizzy.  A quote:

I decline to accept the end of man….I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

LIVING WELL:

Did you know that The New York Times puts a classic crossword puzzle from its archives online each week?  Of course, I’m assuming you’ve seen the riveting, rollicking documentary (really!) Wordplay.  If not, watching it might help inspire you to tackle those NYT toughies. 

POLITICS AND SOCIETY: 
“You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or right, but I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down–up to a man’s age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order–or down to the ant heap totalitarianism, and regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.”

-Ronald Reagan, “A Time For Choosing,” 1964

RELIGION:  

“Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace. Whoever will lose his life in the service of God will find eternal life.”
-Ezra Taft Benson, “Jesus Christ–Gifts and Expectations